UMBC power forward Pandora Wilson heard the playful taunt from the middle- schooler coming her way and got into a defensive crouch. And when the youngster airballed a 3-point attempt, a smile slowly spread across Wilson's face.
Wilson had a basketball reputation to protect on that recent Friday, but more importantly the University of Maryland, Baltimore County senior was delighted to connect with 12 middle schoolers enrolled in Higher Achievement at New Era Academy in South Baltimore.
"I feel like you build a relationship," she said. "If they're listening, they're applying what they've learned here and maybe they're taking something away that's more than just the usual words."
The appearance of nine Retrievers women's basketball players marked the second consecutive summer in which the team showed up at a school or center housing the Higher Achievement program. Higher Achievement is a Baltimore-based initiative that emphasizes academics, social skills and leadership.
Andi Goodwin, an academic advisor at UMBC, is a Higher Achievement mentor who sought to bring the university's athletes to elementary and middle school students during the summer when both parties are not as busy.
"I think first and foremost, [the athletes] step outside of themselves for a moment," said Goodwin, who formerly worked in the Ravens' advertising, community relations and ticketing operations departments. "It's easy to hear the complaining about classes and practice and the workouts. Then they come out here and have a chance to have fun and for a moment, it's not 'Look at how tough my world is.' It affords them a chance to see what doors their talent opens up for them."
Warren Wiggins, manager of instruction for Higher Achievement at New Era, said the students gain just as much as the Retrievers' athletes do when they visit.
"They get excited about college," Wiggins said. "They're excited that they're athletes, but they learn that student-athletes are students first. It's interesting that the students learned that the athletes don't always want to go pro, but want to become lawyers and doctors just like the kids do."
The second half of the UMBC players' visit involved a 45-minute question-and-answer session with the Higher Achievement students, who questioned players on how much sleep they get, whether they can eat dessert during the season and if they are allowed to attend parties.
The students also asked the players about their typical daily schedule (breakfast, classes, lunch, lifting, practice, dinner, homework), how team captains are elected (vote from players and coaches), and how they pay for school (scholarships).
For 11-year-old Jaliyah Robinson, the conversation was the highlight of the visit.
"They told us how college is and how important it is to get a scholarship and get educated and become someone important," said Robinson, a rising sixth-grader at the Crossroads School in East Baltimore who was just as thrilled to have all nine Retrievers players sign the lime-green Higher Achievement T-shirt she wore.
UMBC senior point guard Emily Russo said she enjoys talking with the students.
"It's one thing to play basketball with them," said Russo, a Woodbine resident and Glenelg graduate. "But we're more than just basketball players. If we can reiterate that to them, a question-and-answer session is a great way to do that."
The first half of the visit involved playing basketball inside the sweltering gym at New Era. Five players — Wilson, senior forward Chukwuma Chiamaka, junior shooting guard Laura Castaldo, and freshman shooting guards Allison McGrath and Tyler Moore — drilled six students in the finer points of passes (chest and overhead), while Russo, senior center Amanda Hagaman, freshman forward Kayla Hinderlie and freshman shooting guard Te'yJah Oliver instructed six on dribbling (heads up).
During a game of 5-on-4, one male student walked off the court in frustration after Wilson blocked his shot. Wilson told the boy, "That's how you get better. You've got to be challenged, and you've got to work for it." After some additional cajoling, the student returned to the court.
"I was surprised he came back," Wilson acknowledged. "He seemed pretty mad. But I just kept telling him that he can do it."
The UMBC players' visit was such a hit that the principal at New Era asked Goodwin if they could return to the school in the fall to talk to the girls basketball team. Goodwin said if the Retrievers coaches approve, the players will pay another visit.
Russo said she hopes she and her teammates can return.
"We realize what we do extends beyond the basketball court," she said. "If we can share our experiences with young people, maybe they can do the same thing one day."